Great Big Books

For a goodly period of time now I have been reading short fiction. That is a good thing – I ‘m writing a mess of short fiction and I should read material similar to what I’m working on – plus, I simply don’t have spare time to waste on anything other than a series of wordly aperitifs.

A snack is not a meal, however, and I have felt an irresistible desire to devour a more hearty course of scribbling. There is a heartiness and depth to a long book. There is a feeling of victory as you down the entire thing. And there is meaning of a subtle nature that can only be conveyed over a longer period of time and greater number of pages.

So I opened up a new Collection in my Kindle library called, simply, “big” and have been watching for sales on ebooks. Even the heaviest tome only takes up a few billion bits of electron cloud inside my Kindle – and the price can be surprisingly affordable. There is no better bargain in the entertainment world than a long book. I’ve been working on variety too, from classics to modern, to homegrown to translated – it’s not hard.

Of course, I’m (mostly)leaving out long books I’ve read before (actually, I’m leaving out books I remember reading). The two that come to mind immediately are “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and “Moby Dick.”


Call Me Ishmael

My list so far:

  • Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon (I’ve read about a third of it in the past – will start over. That seems to be how I read Pynchon… dive in, go as far as I can, then beat a retreat until I can return to the scene and soldier on)
  • The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (I know, not technically a single book. I’ve read the first one in the series, but remember little. Like the Pynchon above, I’ll have to start fresh).
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
  • Battle Royale, Koushun Takami (saw the film, now I want to read the book. It’s surprisingly long – there must be a lot in there that didn’t make it onto the screen).
  • The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky (I read this in school. Wrote a paper about it. Don’t remember a single thing. Have to read it again).
  • The Three Musketeers, Dumas (After reading The Club Dumas, now I want to go over the source material. It’s been filmed to death, of course, so I’m curious about the original)
  • Cryptomonicon, Neal Stephenson
  • The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (Started this years ago, couldn’t get going. We’ll see how it goes this time)
  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (I know nothing about this book. Intend to keep it that way until I start to dig in).
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • War and Peace, Tolstoy (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami (I’m a big fan of Murakami. Time to tackle his Big Book)

There are two I don’t have and am waiting to pick up on sale (I have time):

  • 2666, by Roberto Bolaño (I have this one in hardback – but would like to have an electronic copy before diving in)
  • Underworld, by Don DeLillo (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)

And finally, I’m starting with:

The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Kindle gives you running percentage that shows how far you are – a very helpful goal-setting device for devouring something Big. I’m at about sixty-six percent and enjoying the tome. It’s a horrific semi-historical account of an uprising around the previous turn of the last century in a poverty-and-drought-devastated area in Brasil.

I have a method of working my way through big, long, complicated books like this. I keep a pen and paper and carefully sketch out characters as they appear. The kaleidoscope of scenes filled with picaresque folks that comes strolling across the page can get confusing and frustrating without memory aids. This one is especially difficult because many of the protagonists have the same name. Usually, once I get about halfway through, I don’t need the notes anymore, as the characters have become close acquaintances of mine… over time.

I have no idea how long this will take or whether I’ll stick to it (will probably take breaks). I hope I’m able to live long enough.

What I learned this week, March 08, 2013

The True-Life Horror that Inspired Moby-Dick


Call Me Ishmael

What’s on Tap: Proposed laws good for beer – and Texas



10 biggest fast food failures

I remember looking at a bag of potato chips and seeing the warning “May cause anal leakage.” Yeah, right.

 11 Foods You Can’t Buy Anywhere Anymore

and not alltogether a bad thing.

Could the ancient Romans have built a digital computer?

The 10 best restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth

The 10 Best Gift Shops in Dallas
I would add La Mariposa to the list.

The 5 Best Theater Companies in Dallas

Stuff I want:

Titanium Escape Ring Packs a Shim and a Saw

Cube 3D Home Printer

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Again, it was time to decide on the next book for me to read. At one time, that meant perusing the bookshelves in my home – when we lived in Mesquite our entire hallway was lined with shelves chock-a-block with tomes (that’s been reduced to one small and two full-sized bookcases… and they are only half full – mostly non-fiction reference). Now it is a ritual of clicking through the collections in my Kindle… preferably sitting at my laptop, looking up information on each possibility. As the thread of my life is shortening my choice in reading is becoming more selective – there isn’t enough time. When I was young I would finish a book no matter how much I detested or was bored by it. Now, if it isn’t grabbing me, I hit the REMOVE FROM DEVICE selection.

I have had Jennifer Egan’s  “A Visit From the Goon Squad” for some time – having picked it out from a recommended reading list somewhere. It was something I was sure to like; a novel of tightly connected short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards. It had to be good.

However, I had been putting it off. After thinking about it, I’ve realized that it was because I hated the title. “A Visit From the Good Squad” had very negative associations in my noggin’ – though I’m not sure what they were. My mistake was in taking the phrase “Goon Squad” literally – the book does not (in the book the “Goon” is time itself – the central metaphor for the story). I knew nothing about the details of the book (I’ve been trying to avoid plot summaries of books and films – life is a bit more exciting that way) and the title left a bad taste in my mouth.

As I was researching my choice in next-to-read I discovered that HBO is making a cable series out of the book. That was good enough for me. I clicked it into my “READING” collection and dug in.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that (a) the book is very, very good… and (b) the stories are connected in a complex web of space, time, and human connections. I was not going to be able to keep track of everything without help. So I dug out a Staples Bagaase Composition Book (one of the great inventions of all time) and three fountain pens (turquoise, gold-brown, and purple – to help keep different threads separate) and took notes as I read. I wrote down each character, their age, the year (as best as I could figure) and all the connections between them.

By the end of the book I had about twelve pages of concise notes. Not all the possibilities worked out – but I can’t imagine enjoying the stories as much as I did without this effort. It was kind of fun to sit there annotating as I read… sort of like being back in school again.

About halfway through I thought that I probably wasn’t the first person that had this need to outline “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and a quick web search revealed that I wasn’t. Two resources were particularly useful – a detailed timeline of the interlocked stories of the most important dozen characters, and a wonderful 3-D construct, an Interactive Character Map of the denizens of the novel and their relationships with each other. With these resources at my disposal my note-taking became redundant but I forged ahead – a little sloppier – and did discover a couple of connections not noted in the online references.

Having gone into this book from “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” I was relieved to find a more conventional narrative – one with real people and settings. Still, there are a few postmodern touches – especially in the fact that one chapter is told in PowerPoint.

I cared deeply about the characters and wanted to see them happy – which is a good thing, if not always (or even very often) possible. After all, time is a goon, and we are all due our visit from the goon squad.

Harry Potter and the Too Many Pages

My kids have a history with the Harry Potter books. They were just the right age… Well, Nick was at first. He read the first three or so – I remember going to the bookstore in Mesquite at midnight and picking up the books as they were released, so he could start in the next morning. He would devour them.

Nick reading Harry Potter.

Nick reading Harry Potter. Is this the first one?

As the years went by, the books came out while we were out of town, in the middle of summer vacation. Once, we knew we would be in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So I reserved a copy at a bookstore there and Nick and I (he was old enough to stay up now – I don’t know which book it was) went down to pick it up. I remember the night – there was some serious nerdery going on in that bookstore – kids in costume, groups, organized events. I also remember one girl that had a friend in St. Louis. Since midnight there was an hour earlier, her friend was reading her the first chapter over her cell phone while she waited.

Nick sort of grew out of the books. He says he hasn’t read the last two. Lee took over… catching up and reading the rest as they came out. We learned the last book would come out while we were driving through West Texas so we reseved a copy in Amarillo. Back in the hotel, he went down to the lobby and stayed up all night (he has always been a night owl) – reading the thing. He said some strange people came into the hotel after three AM, but they left him alone. He finished the whole book about the time we left in the morning.

I had read the first book, gobbled it down quickly not long after it came out but never read any of the others. I saw… some of the films… maybe three of them. I sort of put them out of my mind as the years went by. I thought about reading them – but the massive size and the time it would require put me off.

But now that they are available as ebooks – I decided to read them on my Kindle. Somehow, the invisible digital bytes hiding inside the tiny tablet seemed less onerous than lugging around giant paper tomes and over four thousand pages of the US edition. So I charged through all seven, one after another. It took a few weeks – I have been busy, but with the Kindle I can carry it with me and grab spare minutes here and there. I liked to take it with me on my bicycle and stop to read when I wanted to take a bit of a rest.

So… what did I think about the beloved series?

First, the experience of reading this much in one gulp is overwhelming. I’ve said before that I have to be careful about what I’m reading because it has such a strong effect on my writing. I was pretty much unable to write any fiction while wallowing in the world of Harry Potter. I did squeeze out a couple mediocre tales of children or teens that didn’t fit in anywhere – lonely, confused, and abandoned… not my usual fare.

But it was an interesting experience – being immersed in J. K. Rowling’s world.

Unfortunately, reading like that does show the flaws in the books pretty starkly. Without a gap between the books the repetitive nature of the first six is obvious and tiring. It’s really the same story told six times. The last one breaks the chain… it is a fully realized grown-up novel.

Also, her overuse of creaky literary crutches – hackneyed plot devices – stuck out. The Harry Potter series is the home of the Hallowed MacGuffin. If you don’t know what a MacGuffin is… read this. Every book revolves around some object (or person), sometimes referred to in the title, that have all the characters dancing around like puppets on strings. But, in the end, that object (or person) really has nothing to do with the actual story at all. That makes it a MacGuffin. The later books have multiple MacGuffins.

There’s nothing wrong with a MacGuffin, of course. You could not have detective stories without them. Hitchcock loved them. The Maltese Falcon is the classic MacGuffin… and there’s no better story than that. But Harry Potter overused them – and when you read all the books and they keep hitting you one after another… a bit much.

She also likes to have all her characters stand around at the end of the books and speak directly about what was really going on – giving out plenty of information that was crudely, cruelly and sometimes arbitrarily withheld from the reader up until then.

And then there’s the Pensieve. Every writer struggles with backstory and point of view. In the Harry Potter books the point of view is held tightly to the hero (with the exception of a prolog or afterward here or there) and she needed a way to bring in information that wasn’t otherwise available to Harry, either by time, space, or the needs of the plot.

So, invent a Pensieve – basically a big bucket – and whenever you need to bring in information that Harry isn’t privy to, have the hero stick his head into the bucket – he falls in, and exactly what you need to have the story go forward (and nothing more) is delivered… by magic.

I shouldn’t complain – it works – but it’s a bit obvious, awkward, and lazy.

Still, though, after all the creaky prose and obvious plot devices it is one hell of a story. Especially when it’s read in one enormous gulp – like a professional eater and a mountain of hot dogs – the world of Harry Potter is irresistible and addictive. You can’t stop reading.

There is plenty there to strike a chord, plenty more to think about. It’s easy to see how it has sold so many copies and become such a touchstone for so many people of several different generations.

I’m just glad I’m done so I can get back to my own pitiful little world.

Hidden Places

Last Thursday I took a PTO day off of work, a mental health day. I decided to go to the Dallas Arboretum in the morning and hang out for a while. We have a membership there, so I don’t have to pay for parking or admission, which is nice. Especially nice because I can go at my leisure and simply relax and walk around, not feel any pressure to get my money’s worth. For that, I can always come back another time.

The Chihuly Exhibit is still up, and will be until November. It is a beautiful as always – and now, since I have a familiarity with it, I am able to see some details and subtle facets that I missed the first time or two through. More than the Chihuly stuff, gorgeous as it is, I am appreciating the beauty of the Arboretum itself – its design and vegetation.

This trip, as always, I took a lot of photographs, which I will continue to force upon my helpless readers whenever I feel like it – or I can’t think of anything else to whine on about. So far, from this trip, here, here, and here, for example… with many more to come.

But other than snapping photographs I wanted to find some spot to sit down with my Kindle and read for a bit, simply soak up the peaceful beauty.

When I first arrived at opening, there weren’t too many folks there, but the crowd quickly grew. Now, there weren’t as many folks as there are on the weekends, not by a long shot, but they tended to cluster along the main paths, surround the more spectacular Chihuly stuff, and blabber on about this and that – generally messing with my chill.

No problema, I expected this. It is a public spot – a tourist attraction – with a very popular special exhibit going on until November… I did not expect to have the whole place to myself. I had already decided to seek out a couple of hidden places, somewhere that I could sit, undisturbed, read a little, and generally chill out.

A couple of parameters had to be established:

  • Obviously, out of the main traffic areas.
  • A nice bench to sit on.
  • Shade (I am using the phrase “Chill Out” in the metaphoric sense – the heat is amazing and deadly)
  • A nice view

The first hidden spot is one I already knew about – I had spotted it the first time I came to the Arboretum. The first stage of A Woman’s Garden is a fiendishly designed series of formal gardens and water features that have a lot of Chihuly’s most spectacular glass works. It draws a big crown, oohing and ahhing and holding their iPhones up to send images back home to Aunt Emma who didn’t want to visit Dallas in the summer.

What they miss are some clever, smaller bits of garden that jut off to the side, little isolated areas that really make the place special. One of these, sandwiched between the first fountain by the entrance to A Woman’s Garden and the Degolyer Mansion is called The Sunset Garden. It is a tiny path that goes up a bit of hill to a stone bench beneath a huge tree. As the name implies, the bench faces west and would be a great place to watch the solar orb sink beneath White Rock Lake. There is a little sign that directs you to the side garden – a sign that everybody, entranced with the colorful glass beyond, seems to miss.

When you clamber up to the stone bench you look down through a gap to a fountain and then past into another small garden – The Pecan Parterre Garden, with a beautiful little sculpture – Harriet Frishmuth’s “Playdays” (more on that bronze piece in a few days, I promise). It is a truly idyllic spot.

The path up to the stone bench in the Sunset Garden from the main entrance to A Woman’s Garden.

A view of the Sunset Garden from the veranda of the DeGolyer mansion. You can see the sun-drenched entrance to A Woman’s Garden and its fountain, and the Pecan Parterre Garden, with the little statue, beyond. White Rock lake is through the trees in the background – this would be a wonderful spot to watch the sun set.

The only problem – as I discovered once I climbed up there and settled in – is that the stone bench is tilted out, ever so slightly, so it is not very comfortable. It’s like sitting in a church pew. I’m afraid that little detail makes the sunset garden a bit more useful to look at than to sit in for more than a few minutes.

Later on, though, I found another little hidden spot that didn’t have any disadvantages at all. I was strolling through the Jonsson Color Garden (the big open ovals where some large Chihuly glass rears up) and looking into the strip of woods that separates that area from the Texas Town (a children’s area with small historical displays) and noticed a wooden bench set deep within the trees. I walked around a bit and found the path back there.

It was perfect. It sits in deep shade from tall overhead trees and is screened from the main walking path by a clump of Crape Myrtles. Cool and quiet – most importantly, the wooden bench is very comfortable. A perfect spot to sit and read (I cranked through an entire novel) and contemplate the universe.

The view ahead and to the left from the little bench. These are some Chihuly red glass sculptures sitting along the edge of the Jonsson Color Garden.

To the right from the bench is a bit of a view of Chihuly’s gigantic Yellow Icicle Tower.

Here’s the bench, with my Kindle, camera case, and woefully inadequate water bottle.

I had a little visitor while I was sitting there – somebody else trying to get out of the killer afternoon heat.

It was too comfortable – I stayed too long into the stifling heat of the afternoon. The rest of the day I was dizzy and confused… even more so than normal. Still, I think I’ll go back. It’s a nice place… and there has to be some more hidden spots that I haven’t found yet. Maybe one with some burbling water nearby.


I had a little money left over on an gift card and began to choose some Kindle books. I picked up a couple of short story selections, Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock and Volt, by Alan Heathcock. Pretty much by a flip of the coin, I read Volt first.

Volt has eight semi-connected longish short stories. Right off the bat, the description of a farmer accidentally killing his son while tilling a field resonated with me. I’m a father and have spent a little time on a tractor seat bouncing in the heat and dust, watching a mile-distant fence line slowly, inexorably approach.  That awful scene was enough to justify the price of the book and the time to read it. I thought that first story could have ended after those two pages.

It didn’t though, as the father, destroyed by the accident and jolted by a near miss with a freight train – runs away. And runs and runs and runs – putting Forest Gump to shame. He ends up wiping his life away and building a new one, of sorts. It’s a journey worthy of Odysseus, and likewise, he finds that home is not what it used to be. Too much water under the bridge.

The stories are all small-town Gothic. They are set in the hopeless wide-spot-in-the-road of Krafton… an imaginary town. Trust me as one who knows – there are a lot of Kraftons out there. One hell of a lot. These are forgotten hamlets where everyone with any ambition or brains left town long ago – leaving the impression that the remaining conscripts – imprisoned by tradition, lack of imagination, and ennui – exist simply to work their way back down the evolutionary chain. There is even a Biblical Flood – though plenty of unworthy survive.

There is one hopeful character, Sheriff Helen Farraley, a plump middle-aged former grocery store manager pressed into service to combat evil no mortal should have to face. Her decisions seem insane, until you try to see her world through those eyes.

At the end of the finely crafted book, I felt I knew the doomed citizens of Krafton, and hoped somehow, someday they find the redemption that they deserve, even if they don’t see it or don’t chose it for themselves.

Now, on to Knockemstiff.

New York Times Review – Stories of Small-Town Strife

‘Volt’ writer Alan Heathcock’s internal duality fuels his gripping prose and creates his epic stories

‘Volt’: Stories for Mourning, After A Nameless Loss

BOOK REVIEW: Alan Heathcock


The Best American Noir of the Century

The Kindle is like crack. Every day I get an email with the “Deal of the Day,” and every day I need to figure out how I am going to resist. It isn’t the money – these books go from ninety nine cents up to, say four bucks. It isn’t the space, either. My Kindle can hold a small library in its memory and what it won’t hold Amazon will store out in the clouds. It’s simply time. There are too many books and life is too short and time is running out too fast.

Sometimes, though, I can’t resist. I buy and I read.

One temptation given in to was a big book that came in for a one-day sale… I think it was $1.99 or so.

I love big, thick anthologies of short stories. Especially with time so short and life so mixed-up and confusing, the ability to scrape up a few spare minutes and read a whole story – complete in and of itself – no remembering galaxies of characters, confused clusters of settings, and subtle plot threads that weave and waft through the delicate tapestry of a novel… one shot, simple, fast, powerful. Give me a tome with twenty or thirty or more of these miniature jewels and I’m a happy camper.

The buck ninety-nine deal came in over the ether for purchase of the Best American Noir of the Century. Couldn’t resist – hit the “buy with one click” button and it was mine.

Reading it took a little longer. It had 39 stories, so it took a few days to plow through. The stories covered about 83 years and were in chronological order. Noir isn’t really a genre, more like an attitude, and you could feel how the stories changed over time.

The book is 800 pages… which made me glad that it was only some bits stored in the Kindle memory. That’s a lot lighter.

There is a lot of criticism of this anthology… mostly concerning the meaning of the term Noir. A lot of folks take Noir to be a hardboiled detective novel. They are disappointed because, although there are some classics in the collection, it takes a broader view of Noir and includes some stories with supernatural elements and other borderline tales.

That’s fine with me. I was surprised to find that I liked some of the more offbeat, longer, and modern riffs. I recommend the anthology highly… it’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Like any group of thirty nine tales, the offerings can be a little uneven. Some folks will like stories I didn’t… but here are a few that stood out in my mind:

Harlan Ellison: 1993: Mefisto in Onyx – Harlan Ellison, not surprisingly, comes up with a loose, weird, caterwauling tale that isn’t what it seems to be and then it turns out not to be that either. Surprising and entertaining.

Ed Gorman: 1995: Out There in the Darkness – Inspired the book and film, “The Poker Club.” The opposite of Mefisto in Onyx… a tale of four ordinary guys, folks you know and love trapped in a cycle of escalating violence.

Elmore Leonard: 2002: When The Women Come Out to Dance – Fantastic tale about a relationship between two women that turns out to be the opposite of what it seems.

Christopher Coake: 2003: All Through the House – One of the best stories I’ve read in a while. A unique structure, told in a series of short, clear scenes in reverse chronological order. Despite it descending into the past, every new section brings an unknown revelation. At the end, you are left devastated by what you know will come to destroy the innocent doomed characters.

Steve Fisher: 1938 You’ll Always Remember Me – Probably my favorite of the older works. A classic Noir.

Joyce Carol Oates: 1997: Faithless – A dark tale that, not surprisingly, reads like the best literature.

Oh, and there is a lot more, famous authors: James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke. Each story is prefaced with a biography of the author – these can be as great a revelation as the fiction.

It makes me want to read more from some of these folks. Thats more like heroin.